June 15, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

PHOTOS: Tustin’s comeback falls short against Warren in CIF Division 3 playoff opener

Tustin junior running back Eimesse Essis runs for a big gain as teammate Alex Peterson applies the block to Warren’s Justice Croffie during the first quarter. (Photos: Fernando M. Donado, For OC Sports Zone)

They will be talking about this one for years to come.

Warren quarterback Madden Iamaleava threw for 468 yards and five touchdowns passes as the Bears held off a spirited second half comeback by Tustin to defeat the Tillers 34-33 in a thrilling opening round game of the CIF Division 3 playoffs Friday night at Tustin.

Warren (9-2) advances to the second round and will play Oak Hills next week.

Trailing 27-13 at halftime, Tustin came out of the locker room re-energized and scored two third quarter touchdowns to tie the game at 27-27. Running back Eimesse Essis scored on runs of 35 and 1 yards to even the score. Essis second TD came with 19 seconds left in the quarter.

“The coaches came into the locker room at half with high energy and the kids responded,” said Tillers Coach Anthony Lopez. “We told them we’re going to take the ball on the first possession of the third quarter and score and hold them and then score again and that’s exactly what we did.”

To see the slide show, click on the first photo:

However, on the Bears first play of their ensuing possession following Tustin’s second touchdown of the third quarter, Iamaleava tossed a 63-yard TD pass to Jordan Ross and Warren retook the lead 34-27 with one second remaining in the third quarter.

“Even after they scored, we had total confidence coming into the huddle and I told the guys, ‘we have to score,’” said Iamaleava, who completed 17 passes and has thrown for 2,825 yards and 34 TDs this season.

His display of elusiveness and quickness throughout the game was the difference in the contest. Jordan Ross and Jalen Ross combined to catch 11 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns. Their speed caused the Tillers secondary fits all night long.

But the Tillers would not go away quietly.

Tustin drove 70 yards in eight plays to start the fourth quarter and came within a point of tying the score. Wide receiver Larry Allen took a handoff from quarterback Jack Stupin and completed a 30-yard TD pass to MacKenzie Alleyne to cut the lead to 34-33. However, Tustin’s PAT was blocked and the Tillers trailed by a point with 8:11 remaining.

Warren went on a long drive to the 10-yard line, but were stalled when Jalen Ross’ fourth down pass fell incomplete. Tustin took over and moved the ball out to midfield on a spectacular pass play from Stupin to Allen. However, three plays later with under a minute to play, Stupin’s pass was intercepted by Bears safety Jordan Jones foiling the Tillers comeback hopes.

Iamaleava got the Bears started on the opening possession of the game as he tossed a 49-yard TD pass over the middle to Jordan Ross and the Bears led 6-0. The Tillers quickly countered and tied the score at 6-6 on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Stupin to Essis. Essis rushed for 185 yards and three touchdowns. He finishes the season with 1,614 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns.

“It was a great season; we fought to the end and never quit,” said Essis.

The Bears got a bit fortunate on their next possession as Iamaleava’s long pass was nearly intercepted by a Tustin defender, but it deflected high into the air and Jalen Ross hauled it in and raced in from 25 yards for a touchdown as Warren retook the lead 13-6 with 6:07 left in the opening quarter.

Moments later, Iamaleava threw a 30-yard TD pass to Jace Brown and the Bears extended its lead to 20-6 after the first quarter. Once again, Tustin responded and drove 72 yards in seven plays, to trim the lead to 20-13. Alleyne completed a swing pass to Kristian Dunbar Hawkins who scored from nine yards on the first play of the second quarter.

Before one could blink, Iamaleava countered with an 80-yard TD pass to the speedy Jalen Ross and Warren led 27-13 with 11:35 to go in the half. Iamaleava completed 12 of 19 passes for 350 yards and four TD passes in the first half. 

“They hit us with a some big plays in the first half and that hurt us,” said Lopez. 

The Bears outgained the Tillers 376-139 yards in the first half.  Play was halted for about 10 minutes midway through the second quarter when Tustin defender Khalil Terry was carted off the field with a forearm injury after making a tackle.   

The Tillers, the Empire League champions and the only undefeated Orange County team entering Friday’s game, finished the season 10-1. Warren won the Gateway League and have won seven consecutive games.

“This has been my favorite team that I’ve ever coached,” said Lopez. “Their work ethic everyday throughout the season is going to take them far in the world. I’ve been blessed with a great staff and they never quit; they are the best bunch I’ve ever coached.”

—Tom Connolly, For OC Sports Zone